Pascal’s Wager

25 01 2008

Co-writer: Mahmood Hameed

“If you believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you have lost nothing–but if you don’t believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you will go to hell. Therefore it is foolish to be an atheist.”

This argument is known as Pascal’s Wager. It seems to be common sense, however it has several flaws.

Firstly, it does not indicate which religion to follow. Indeed, there are many mutually exclusive and contradictory religions out there. This is often described as the “avoiding the wrong hell” problem. If a person is a follower of one religion, he may end up in another religion’s version of hell.

Even if we assume that there’s a God, that doesn’t imply that there’s one unique God. Which should we believe in? If we believe in all of them, how will we decide which commandments to follow?

Secondly, the statement that “If you believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you have lost nothing” is not true. Suppose you’re believing in the wrong God–the true God might punish you for your foolishness. Consider also the deaths that have resulted from people rejecting medicine in favour of prayer.

Talking from a scientific point of view, there is also another problem that the above argument creates. By assuming that you have nothing to lose if you follow a religion, the contrary happens to be true. Evolution and natural selection tends to choose the creatures whom use the available resources efficiently.

As humans, we balance our work/education, maintenance and leisure needs equally in order to lead happy lives. However, if huge resources (both material and financial) are allocated to building mosques instead of health clinics for the needy, we are clearly being inefficient in handling the world’s scarce resources. Likewise, dedicating substantive amounts of time praying and conducting other religious activities instead of other, more useful activities which could actually contribute to the well-being and advancement of the human race, such as exploration, research or education.

Another flaw in the argument is that it is based on the assumption that the two possibilities are equally likely–or at least, that they are of comparable likelihood. If, in fact, the possibility of there being a God is close to zero, the argument becomes much less persuasive. So sadly the argument is only likely to convince those who believe already.

Also, many feel that for intellectually honest people, belief is based on evidence, with some amount of intuition. It is not a matter of will or cost-benefit analysis.

Formally speaking, the argument consists of four statements:

  1. One does not know whether God exists.
  2. Not believing in God is bad for one’s eternal soul if God does exist.
  3. Believing in God is of no consequence if God does not exist.
  4. Therefore it is in one’s interest to believe in God.

There are two approaches to the argument. The first is to view Statement 1 as an assumption, and Statement 2 as a consequence of it. The problem is that there’s really no way to arrive at Statement 2 from Statement 1 via simple logical inference. The statements just don’t follow on from each other.

The alternative approach is to claim that Statements 1 and 2 are both assumptions. The problem with this is that Statement 2 is then basically an assumption which states the Christian position, and only a Christian will agree with that assumption. The argument thus collapses to “If you are a Christian, it is in your interests to believe in God”–a rather vacuous tautology, and not the way Pascal intended the argument to be viewed.

Also, if we don’t even know that God exists, why should we take Statement 2 over some similar assumption? Isn’t it just as likely that God would be angry at people who chose to believe for personal gain? If God is omniscient, he will certainly know who really believes and who believes as a wager. He will spurn the latter, assuming he actually cares at all whether people truly believe in him.

Some have suggested that the person who chooses to believe based on Pascal’s Wager, can then somehow make the transition to truly believing. Unfortunately, most atheists don’t find it possible to make that leap.

In addition, this hypothetical God may require more than simple belief; almost all Christians believe that the Christian God requires an element of trust and obedience from his followers. That destroys the assertion that if you believe but are wrong, you lose nothing.

Finally, if this God is a fair and just God, surely he will judge people on their actions in life, not on whether they happen to believe in him. A God who sends good and kind people to hell is not one most atheists would be prepared to consider worshipping.

While we’re on the topic of hell, most atheists such as myself (and Mahmood, ofcourse) do not and can not stomach a scenario whereby we destroy a single person’s life (such as permanently causing harm or even killing them). We are, however, not very special in this case. Most humans do share the same nature as us, whether religious or not. It is a human tendency to look after each other rather than cause harm. Individual human instinct instructs us to help the victim in a mob attack – whether we have the courage or not is irrelevant.

The point is that we are not special in not condoning the death, or perhaps causing death, to any fellow human beings. However, this does not seem to be the case with God who perhaps knows that according to their rules (it depends which God and in which religion), billions of people will have to perish in the hell fire forever. Fire and any heat-related mechanisms are the most painful way of torture and death. However, since in hell there is no death, God will be for eternity glad and fulfilled to see billions of men and women’s torment as they burn in the fire of God’s selfishness.

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